Does populism threaten our liberal democracy?

William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues that liberal democracy “faces clear and present dangers” from a rising populist tide. Unlike members of the anti-Trump resistance, Galston is not in full panic mode. In his view, the various populist movements sweeping the West, including Brexit to Trumpism, are not at this time an existential threat to democracy. However, they are “beginning to question key liberal-democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, and minority rights,” he believes.

Galston’s piece is well worth reading. However, David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation finds Galston’s case unconvincing. He notes that the only damning piece of evidence Galston produces is a quote from a 2014 speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in which he embraces the idea of “illiberal democracy.” But even if Orbán turns out to be an autocrat (I’m a bit more worried that he will than David seems to be), this would hardly show that, as a general matter, the populism sweeping the West is a threat to rule of law, freedom of the press, and minority rights.

David finds no evidence of such threats in the U.S. under Trump. Nor is there any, as I will discuss in an upcoming post.

I don’t mean to suggest that populism, including the form President Trump exemplifies, is entirely benign. Populism is often associated with a cult of personality. It can create an unhealthy need to keep the public aroused and entertained. Typically, it cuts across ideological lines. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to day-to-day improvisation by its leader[s].

Finally, populism typically fails to distinguish between privilege and merit. In declaring war on the former, it can produce an attack on the latter.

We see some of this in Trump’s America. For example, Trump has generated a cult of personality to a degree. But I would argue that Barack Obama did so to a greater extent.

Trump improvises from day to day, sometimes across ideological lines. However, this happens mostly in tweets. His policy decisions flow largely in one direction — the direction he promised to take the country as a candidate. He isn’t improvising much.

Trump keeps the public aroused and entertained, but mainly by way of reacting to his opponents. It is the left that feels the overwhelming need to keep its base aroused by railing against threats supposedly posed and crimes supposedly committed by the president.

As for privilege vs. merit, Trump well understands the difference. He respects accomplishment, especially in business and the military, and is impressed by educational pedigree.

Crucially, as I will discuss in my upcoming post, Trump has not tried to deprive opponents of speech rights, disobeyed court orders, or attacked minority groups of American citizens. Thus, Trump’s brand of populism is no threat to “key liberal-democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, and minority rights.”

In fact, Azerrad shows that in America right now, the threat to liberal democracy comes from “the mounting illiberalism of the Left.” David writes:

These illiberal tendencies are most readily on display against the twin remaining pillars of liberalism: religious liberty and free speech. (The third pillar, property rights, has long since been eviscerated.) Religious liberty, once considered by nearly all Americans our first freedom, is now increasingly becoming a partisan issue as the Left pushes LGBTQ rights at the expense of the rights of conscience.

The Left’s live-and-let-live ethos of the 1960s has been supplanted by a zeal to impose its views on others and a mounting hostility toward traditional Christianity. Every last baker, florist, and photographer in America, for example, must be compelled to celebrate gay marriages.

As for speech:

[T]he Left’s once-spirited defense of free speech has given way to a vigorous push to censor so-called “hate speech.” As it stands, America remains the only Western nation not to do so, and the Left is adamant that we go the way of countries like Canada, which punishes anyone “who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, willfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group.”

Liberals are equally keen to expand campaign finance laws to restrict further the rights of citizens to express their political views. . . .

David also identifies the illiberalism inherent in the left’s transnationalism:

At a deeper level, modern liberalism is increasingly hostile to the bedrock idea of national sovereignty, which undergirds democratic liberalism. The Left’s support for transnationalism, global governance, unfettered globalization, and open borders is incompatible with sovereign countries, in the same way that their embrace of identity politics is incompatible with any genuine patriotic attachment. And without countries, there can be no liberal democracy.

American populism opposes transnationalism. In doing, it promotes liberal democracy.

To be sure, if one defines populism as Galston does — “a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments [i.e. constitutionalism and liberal protections for individual rights and minorities] that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems” — then, by definition, populism threatens liberal democracy. But David offers a better definition — populism as the view that the people, broadly defined, are being screwed over by the elites, either intentionally or not.

This populism entails no rebellion against liberal democracy. Our system of government provides the tools to deal with that to which populism objects.

Trump does not claim that it is constitutionalism and protection minority rights that stands in the way of his agenda, and American populism doesn’t either. To the contrary, American populism appeals for closer adherence to the U.S. Constitution.

David is right, therefore, to conclude that, although the populist impulse needs occasionally to be checked, it does not threaten good constitutional government. The claim that it does, though made calmly by Goldston, seems like just another way of expressing anti-Trump sentiment.

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